This article by Jill Sykes was first published in Look, the membership magazine of the Art Gallery of NSW in July 2008. Reproduced here with permission of the author.
HOW LAST YEAR’S DOBELL WAS SPENT
…”JUST SOAKING UP LIGHT AND LINE ON THE WATER”
When an ‘unknown’ artist wins a major art prize with a work that is refreshingly understated in our highly coloured, upfront world, the impact is amplified. So it was with the 2007 Dobell Prize for Drawing, won by Ana Pollak with Mullet Creek, an oyster lease not far from her home on the Hawkesbury River. Her subtle, atmospheric application of graphite on rice paper delighted the AGNSW senior curator of prints, drawings and watercolours, Hendrik Kolenberg. “It was an inspired choice by the judge, Colin Lanceley, from a lot of entries, many by well-known artists. This sequence of oyster beds is very quiet and it began to work on all of us who saw it. It came out of the blue – and that’s what ‘makes’ a prize. It’s not always a ‘name’ that wins.”
Nearly a year later, with the 2008 Dobell Prize coming up soon, Look talked to both the winner and the judge about the process of making work, the onerous task of deciding a winner, the prize and what it meant to them as artists and individuals.
ANA POLLAK and her companion David Collins have a tiny home and separate studios clasped to the curve of a hillside on Dangar Island in the Hawkesbury River. Cantilevered on stilts, these buildings hardly disturb the tall trees and huge rocks that were glistening and dripping with rain the day I called. Even if you had never seen her drawings, you would know instantly how important the natural environment is to her life and work.
Pollak and Collins built their light footprint on the island 21 years ago. They have neither a powered boat to reach the mainland nor a car when they get there. Pollak says all the walking and rowing keep her body working well – the rowing being done in a dory based on an American sealing boat that she says is light and glides through the water:
“It’s so effortless you don’t feel as if you are putting in any pressure. You can go out to the bush or up the creeks and into the bays. And as soon as you are on the water,
rowing, you are immediately connected … when your feet are off the ground it dislocates the mind from all that doing side of life. It is much easier to connect.”
The connection is obvious from her Dobell winning painting, Mullet Creek. “That one was really focusing on the oyster leases. For me it was something that had been in gestation for a long time, wanting to find a language to interpret that particular oyster farming country. It was just floating the idea around the subconscious, trying to work it out. The more you play with ideas, the more you feel the essence of what you are after.”
Music also had a role in the making of Mullet Creek. Pollak enjoys listening to ABC Radio National where she heard the Tord Gustavsen Trio on Andy Ford’s music show: “Music plays an important part in my work. The first track of Being There taught me the importance of pauses and silence in a work. I knew I wanted to put something in the Dobell Prize and I thought, I’ll buy this CD … and I just listened to how beautiful the pauses were.
And this is what helped shape that drawing: the careful consideration of when to start, when to stop.” She plays some and it sounds just like her drawing. “I find in art there are so many common elements among the art forms, don’t you? At the moment I am listening to this wonderful sextet by Brahms and the shapes in that inspire me. They are just going to waft there in the periphery until I know what to do with them. I don’t like listening as I work – it’s too distracting.”
Water is not her only natural inspiration. In 2006, she and Collins spent six months living on the eastern and western edges of the Simpson Desert. “Just drawing and painting.” They also spent time in iron ore country at Wittenoom running a guesthouse, Pollak acting as post mistress and doing the bureau of meteorology weather reports. “And in between, we could go down Wittenoom Gorge, with its most beautiful red iron bands which had spinifex on them so you would get this landscape of dots and red stripes – quite unique.
“We also had quite a long time in the Kimberley. It was really through those trips that I got reconnected to the practice of drawing.” She had studied art when she left school but became diverted by her commitment to the environment and community projects, which also earned her a living. This is what occupied her time up to 2004. Then, encouraged by Collins, an oil painter, and other artists including the inspiring Elisabeth Cummings, Pollak decided at the age of 46 to focus on art. “If you want to see how far you can take something, you have to put all your eggs in one basket. So I have put a lot of time into drawing and sculpting over the last three years.
“Drawing has always been number one. And line. And in the last three years, the exploration of line has been inspired by Chinese calligraphy. Now I realise that to get to that sophisticated state of having the command of the brush and to be able to take it in your own way, I don’t have the time… The best I can do is try to capture the essence of it, and play with that essence of movement, because it is all about movement and line and bringing the two together.
“I have found that the river has given me a good diving board to explore that combination of elements. It is wonderful when one can go out and pursue something – and winning the Dobell Prize was one of those fantasies. You dream of having the opportunity to do that work – to play – fulltime. I haven’t had to go out and source community projects to subsidise my idiosyncratic stuff. In that time I have had, it has just been soaking up light and line on the water.”
As well as buying time for her to concentrate on her art, the $20,000 Dobell win resulted in an invitation to a drawing bienniale in Canberra’s Drill Hall Gallery. This is in November, which makes a momentous year for Pollak – who spent many days in April’s wet weather simply unable to put graphite pencil to rice paper in the damp air. Her tiny studio amongst the trees has an indoor area that is really a storage place: a treasure trove of natural and manufactured objects to use or inspire for their shapes and textures. Beside it is a verandah, open on three sides, which is where she works … so long as the rain is not drenching or so light that it mists in. She has to roll up what she has done at the end of every day and store it up high under the roof of their tiny home to maintain its dryness.
She has been showing her work since 2007 at the Sara Roney Gallery, where she will have an exhibition again next month. Meanwhile there is a combined show on at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery this month for Pollak, her twin sister Jenny and Collins. Pollak’s second sister Liesl has just started an art course, and their brother Linsey is the imaginative, lateral-thinking musician who Society members heard playing for the Indian film Shiraz last year in his diverse career of special events, often involving community players. Their mother focused enthusiastically on art in the last 15 years of her life, and their father, in his 80s, is thrilled to have set up what he reckons is his best workshop ever to continue making strong, handsome chairs.
Pollak says she has moved on since her Dobell win: “I am working much more with texture now – much more with the interplay of the sky and the water … the sky reflected in the water. To look at that mirroring, to look at the two coming together… I have been working on fog pieces and they are the vapour and the water together – it is such a special thing. Totally surrounded by vapour, nothing else. It is soft, it’s quiet.”
How do you get that into a drawing? “I think by being minimal. That’s what I found so special about the desert – that reduction of visual stimulus. The mind slows down because the eyes are not engaged with so many things, and you get this meditative way of being in the country. I think this is what happens in the fog: you have not got so much visual stimulus, your mind goes into this incredible calm state. And you reduce what you are putting down to the barest essentials. That subtlety … but then you need variety. It is always a tussle between the bold and the subtle, wanting to control and wanting to be spontaneous, the head and the heart, playing with the literal space and the abstracted surface.”
WHAT THE JUDGE THOUGHT
COLIN LANCELEY and his wife Kay live totally indoors in a former warehouse – a calm oasis surrounded by traffic-laden inner Sydney streets. Life and work intertwines in the domestic and studio space. Taking his place at the end of an expansive dining table, Lanceley plunges into a passionate exposition on the importance of drawing and the pleasure he had – mixed with a little pain – in deciding the 2007 award for the Dobell Prize.
It is the biggest competition this distinguished artist has judged and he was impressed by the efficient operation as Gallery staff carried the works past as he sat at a table, forced to make an instant decision in the first round: in or out. Anything creased or rolled up so you have to put them on the floor and weigh them down in order to look at them did not get beyond first base. “Doing things like that disqualifies them. The love and dedication in the presentation of the work is missing.
“There was also a lot of bad drawing. It soon became apparent that there are a lot of people who think they can draw but it is quite plain that they can’t. Drawing is hard – though you can teach people to get better. It is like chess: the more you do of it, the better you become. But there are limitations on that, too. A lot has to come from inside, which you either have or you don’t have.” He didn’t look at any names, though, of course, he recognised some people stylistically.
On his approach to judging the quality of a drawing, he says: “I like the paper to do a lot of the work so the incisiveness, the quality of the drawn line or mark, is very important. It is the paper around the mark that helps make those marks meaningful. And in the case of Ana Pollak, I felt that those marks were not only beautiful in themselves but they were very evocative. She had put a wash on this huge sheet of paper and really the marks have a terrific lyrical presence and their reflection in the water was the simplest of ideas in a way, yet it was worthy of an impressionist like Monet, for instance. You take away from looking at Mullet Creek an indelible impression of something that has happened before your eyes – unpredictable and fresh. And that meant a great deal as far as I was concerned.
“A lot of people feel they have to colour in the paper. There were lots of drawings with lots of charcoal on them. I find that kind of thing fudging – it’s padding. It is almost trying to imitate painting in a drawn form. So you get really black charcoal then grades of tone – and those grades of tone are covering up the decisions which are in the line. It’s the line that is carrying the information. So they didn’t have much approval from this judge.”
The worst thing about judging was “having to leave out two and choose one when there are three that are really good. And you can’t give consolation prizes… In the end I think it worked well.”
As for the prize itself, Lanceley says “it is important in terms of focusing the attention on drawing and what drawing might be about and who is doing it. And because it is a wide spectrum, that is all the better. There is so much in drawing – and I was really pleased that the exhibition as a whole was good.
“Drawing is always a very important part of making art. It is fundamental in the sense that you can’t invent a shape without drawing. You have to put a line around things to describe them. You can’t look at something and make a rendition of it – something in your head, seen in a dream, seen in nature, it’s all the same in the end. You have to have that vital relationship between the head and the hand. And you can train that quite a lot, but without an original spark, the training doesn’t do a lot.”